Predicting the climate of the future

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What kind of climate did we have millions of years ago? What exactly has changed in the meantime? And what does this say about the future? We can answer these kinds of questions.

We read the ground if it where a book

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For instance, the bottom of a lake contains a huge amount of information on the past. Year after year, layers of sediment are deposited in a lake. You could compare it with a tree that leaves a new ring behind in its trunk, each year. To study the soil we use a drill core, which is comparable to a large apple corer, to drill into the ground. We analyse and describe in detail the entire organic residue that is brought to the surface. This allows us to see what grew and blossomed there in the past.

The deeper you dig the further back in time you go. You read the ground as if it were a natural book. It stores all kinds of organic residues dating back millions of years. You draw all kinds of conclusions from it. If you find a lot of birch tree seeds, you can work out what kind of climate was prevalent at the time. Thanks to modern-day information, we know what climate is most suitable for birch trees. That’s how we can reconstruct the past. With these climate models from the past, you can also predict the future. You can find out in detail what could happen to the climate in the next hundred years. Just look at the amount of CO2 that has been released into the atmosphere in recent years. We haven’t seen a situation like this in thousands of years. You have to go back millions of years to find a situation that is somewhat comparable to this. It’s out there but it’s never the perfect comparison. The speed at which the level of CO2 is currently increasing, is much higher than in the past, for instance. But the amount of CO2 itself has occurred before. This allows us to predict what the world would look like with half the amount of CO2.

Nobody has ever properly drilled deep enough to gather all this information. If you want to go a long way back in time, you have to drill deep and that’s costly. And you need partners, in the industry for instance, to finance it. We’re currently working on this. This is an interesting initiative for all kinds of parties. For water companies that focus on the drinking water supply, for example. We can tell the exact locations where they’ll find water in the ground. But our drilling also allows us to study why earthquakes occur. Or you can research thermal heat, i.e. storing warmth in the ground to be used at a later time. This kind of research is still in its infancy but these measurements all help to move it along. 

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By reconstructing the landscape of the last five to ten thousand years, you can tell when man started having an influence on the landscape. When did we start cutting down trees, for instance? You can retrieve this information from the ground. In this case, you’ll find less signs of tree vegetation but you’ll see an increase of holes and grass, followed by grain used in agriculture. This is interesting material for archaeologists with whom we collaborate a lot.

Why is this so important

The climate of the future can be predicted by investigating the climate of the paste. The knowlegde we collect about the climate of the past can help us to anticipate on what lies ahead.


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I am Timme Donders and I study the climate of the past. This allows me to predict what will happen to our climate in the coming years. I do this by studying vegetation. Which plants and trees used to grow where? What does this tell us about the climate? How much atmospheric pollution was there a hundred years ago? And what does that tell us about the future? These are questions I can answer.  

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